IN THE MIDDLE OF AUGUST, as Anna Hazare exited stage left, Baba Ramdev finally stepped to the centre of the clangorous anti-corruption campaign. The made-for-television concerns of the day remained the same—systemic graft, black money—but the threats were sharper, and noticeably more political. The Centre is formed of a coalition of parties with disparate and unclear agendas, but Ramdev singled out the United Progressive Alliance’s biggest slice. “We will now go from village to village telling them maybe Congress people own this black money and so they do not want to declare it a national asset.”
Until at least 2008, Ramdev held back from revealing a political leaning. He restricted himself to issuing social remedies: calling for the ban of allopathic medicine, promoting yoga as a cure for AIDS and advising the export of “surplus population”. Politically he traded in pablum, proposing to clear the system of “deadwood”.
So on 13 August, when Ramdev courted arrest by marching to Parliament, a businessman in Dubai had reason to watch him with interest on television. Kirit C Mehta, who at one time had an amicable relationship with Ramdev, parted ways with him wishing they had never met. Which explains why he now lives at a safe enough distance to observe his tormentor closely. “I know exactly what his role in politics is going to be,” Mehta told me of Ramdev. “I challenged him on Twitter, saying he’s not going to start his own political party. He’s talking about these things today, openly. His true colours are coming out now. But I’ve known these things for two years, two-and-a-half years.” He keeps a file on Ramdev, reading practically everything printed about him—even going so far as remembering mistakes in articles.
Mehta has led a storied life. Before he became known in spiritual TV circles as the man who rang up Disha, a spiritual TV channel on a phone-in programme, and announced, in lurid and live detail, how Ramdev cheated him out of his company, Mehta was considered something of a pioneer of spiritual broadcasting in India.
Mehta began Aastha, a television channel that covered sermons by the leading gurus of the day, in 2000. Three years later he met Ramdev. Mehta, who was looking for talent then, gave Ramdev a miss, but Sanskar TV, a newer rival in the segment, brought him on board. When Mehta saw Ramdev on Sanskar, he convinced him to leave Sanskar for Aastha.
Ramdev quickly built a sizeable and fervent following with television sermons on Aastha broadcast across the country and outside of it. He was contracted to perform on a cruise liner, he travelled across Southeast Asia, and even spoke at a spiritual conference that had the Dalai Lama among its guests. In time, he leaped effortlessly from prescribing healthy living to encouraging the abdication of science: Breathing, Ramdev has said, “is the perfect nanomedicine”.
“My wife was the content head of the channel,” Mehta said. It was her job to ensure that “no one said anything bad about anyone else”. Mehta maintained that the channel, particular about avoiding potentially controversial content, took many programmes off air. It hurt revenues. “Even with Ramdev, we stopped him from making anti-multinational comments. He used to do all that those days, ‘Coca Cola bandh kar do, toilet cleaner hai, bandh kar do’, and all that.”
“But as his influence grew in the channel…” and here Mehta paused, trying to find the right words, “because of the support we gave him, he took advantage of that.” The pitch of his voice rose: “We brought him in as a partner, and he took over the channel!”
“He converted the other shareholders,” Mehta alleged. “I had a controlling interest, but my shares were non-tradeable, because they were not listed.” Mehta wasn’t being entirely frank. Aastha was listed on the Bombay Stock Exchange, and it caught the regulator’s attention in 2001 after the price of its shares inexplicably rose 300 percent in three months. SEBI found that equity was issued privately, and illegally, when Mehta was at the helm of the company. Shares were frozen. Then there were Aastha’s growing losses to reckon with. In December 2007, Mehta sold the domestic component of the business to a company managed by Ramdev’s aides.
According to Mehta, Ramdev, through his proxies, didn’t just want one part of the business, he wanted it all. On Ramdev’s insistence, Mehta and other partners in the company visited his ashram at Patanjali. It dawned on Mehta that this was going to be unpleasant. “He threatened me clearly,” Mehta claimed. “[He said] ‘unless and until you sign this, you will not be able to live in this world.’ In very clear terms. The others heard, and that’s what got them afraid. That is how they cooperated with him.”
Mehta fled the country for the United Arab Emirates. His wife was treated for cancer in Dubai, and he saw his years away from India, and his business interests here, as a kind of sabbatical. He said he was seeking funding to start a new venture.
I asked him if his association with Ramdev gave him any insight into what he could be planning next. “You have to see him in private. He’s going to expose himself more and more. I’m waiting to see him,” Mehta said. “Once he has power, the NDA and all these other guys will see how difficult it is to control him. He’ll ban everything—toothpastes, Coca Cola. We’ll be reverting to the Stone Age. Today he said he will do the tervi [thirteenth day rites] of the Congress and that their arthi is ready. What sort of holy man, even at a low level, says this kind of thing about their sworn enemy? Now that is something nobody is questioning him about. Nobody is thinking rationally about how a spiritual man can say this.”
The allegations are wild, but Mehta’s larger question—just who is Ramdev?—is a valid one. Right now, as he looms in the political arena, and threatens to find for himself a larger role, the vocabulary about him is purely political. By dint of simply existing in the middle of a large and important current event, discussions about him have been reduced to the now, and the tomorrow. But what he has done and said before matters, and might be the most important thing of all: Ramdev, with his extreme views and silly recommendations, is a fascinating character on television, but off it, in real life, he’s a frightening one.